The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh volleyball team’s remarkable season came to an end late Wednesday, with the Titans losing their NCAA tournament quarterfinal match to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in Claremont, California.
The defeat in the Elite Eight put an end to a 2023 campaign that will be remembered for the piling up of wins, records and accolades for UW Oshkosh players and coaches.
One person—perhaps more than anyone else—able to find the experience both exhilarating and familiar is Katelyn Vara, now in her 11th season as an assistant coach following a four-year playing career with UWO volleyball.
Most notably, Vara was a standout setter in 2009, her senior season and the last time the Titans reached the quarterfinals. That year the team went 39-3 overall and lost in the semifinals in the NCAA tournament. Vara earned All-WIAC First Team, All-Region First Team and All-America Honorable Mention honors that year.
Titans head coach Jon Ellmann ’12 and ’14 MSE, said the current coaching staff—with multiple UWO alumni from different eras in the mix—helped reach the players from different angles. Vara, specifically, represents the last era when the women’s volleyball program experienced elite national-level success.
“I know through my bones that we as an institution, department and program, have the potential to be at that level year in and year out,” Ellmann said. “Our team however doesn’t have that benefit of really knowing what it felt like—or experiencing it firsthand. This connection to previous success through a current coach has helped our team understand and feel what is possible for them.”
Vara graduated in 2010 with a degree in physics. She now works as a senior mechanical engineer and program manager at Plexus in Neenah. Her love of volleyball—and love of UW Oshkosh volleyball—brought her back to the program more than a decade ago to help give future Titans the same amazing experiences she had.
“I try to use my experiences to help motivate and manifest success for this team,” she said. “I have real empathy for what our student athletes face day to day. There are countless situations that I can honestly say ‘I know what it feels like.’ I know what it feels like to ride the bench. I know what it feels like to get subbed out. I know what it feels like to have the pressure of juggling school, volleyball, social life, work and family. I know what it feels like to become a starter, a captain, an All-American. I know what it feels like to be at the Elite Eight two seasons in a row. I know what it feels like to win—and to lose big matches. The list goes on. I try to share my experiences, good and bad, as often as I can.”
The 2023 team began the season with 34 straight wins, breaking the program’s win-streak record of 29 set during Vara’s senior year. And now, like that 2009 group, this year’s team knows the heartbreak of defeat a few steps short of a national championship.
Among the advantages of having someone with Vara’s experience on staff is having someone who can emphasize certain messages they wish they would have been able to embrace during their playing days.
“I wish someone would’ve told me or could have somehow made me realize earlier just how fast four years go,” she said. “And how amazing of a time this is. How to appreciate just being on the court or in a hotel room or bus, with your best friends. How these are memories that you can cherish for literally the rest of your life. How to work through petty thoughts. How to build mental toughness. How to be vulnerable. How to accept others. To concentrate on what positive things you bring to the team and the world and not focus on what you don’t or can’t bring. That there is not always an easy answer and how to navigate that. Win or lose, nobody can take away what you have already accomplished. That you alone can frame what ‘picture’ you see, and what ‘filter’ you use to deal with the situations you are put in. To concentrate your energy on the things you can control and worry not of the things you can’t.”
The team she’s passing those learned lessons on to, Vara said, is a special group. They appreciate each other and find the bright side of each of their personalities—a special kind of love.
“This group of ladies has fully embraced the process and culture that we envisioned for UWO volleyball,” she said. “Each player is unique, but they truly accept and love each other. I have never seen another team that portrays this amount of support and love throughout a full roster.”
“I can only hope that maybe some of my experiences or wisdom can help some of our ladies overcome a hurdle, ease a bit of their pain, add to their own experience or prepare them better for the world that is waiting for them after they graduate.”